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‘Death and the Civil War’ to air on AETN Sept. 18

“Death and the Civil War” will premiere on “American Experience” on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam – to this day the single bloodiest day in American history. 

From acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, “Death and the Civil War” explores an essential but largely overlooked aspect of the most pivotal event in American history: the transformation of the nation by the death of an estimated 750,000 people – nearly two and a half percent of the population at the time – from 1861 to 1865. 

With the Civil War, and its completely unprecedented casualties, death entered the experience of the American people as it never had before – on a scale and in a manner no one had ever imagined, under circumstances for which the nation was completely unprepared. The impact permanently altered the character of the republic, the culture of the government and the psyche of the American people. 

“Transpose the percentage of dead that mid-19th-century America faced into our own time – 7 million dead, if we had the same percentage,” said author Drew Gilpin Faust, on whose book, “This Republic of Suffering,” the film is based. “What would we as a nation today be like if we faced the loss of 7 million individuals?” 

“Death and the Civil War” tracks the increasingly lethal arc of the war, from the bloodless opening in 1861, through the chaos of Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the unspeakable carnage of 1864 – down through the aftermath of the war as Americans coped with a landscape littered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many unburied, most unidentified.

Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries in America; no provisions to identify the dead, notify next of kin, or provide aid to families of dead veterans; no federal relief organizations; no effective ambulance corps; no adequate federal hospitals; no federal provisions for burying the dead; no Arlington Cemetery; and no Memorial Day. The Civil War – universally predicted to be a brief and bloodless military adventure – came crashing down as the war dragged on, casualties mounted, and the cumulative impact of the war sank deeply into the psyche of the American people. 

Unprepared for the monumental work of burying and accounting for the dead, the northerners and southerners alike had to deal with thousands and thousands of bodies and the grieving families seeking information about loved ones.

When the Civil War ended in April 1865, Americans struggled to come to terms with what they had done to each other and to themselves in four bloody years.  No official policy existed for locating, identifying, re-burying and honoring the hundreds of thousands of people who had died, or for comforting the widows and orphans. Tens of thousands of soldiers lay unburied, their bones littering battlefields; still more had been hastily interred where they fell, and hundreds of thousands remained unidentified. 

Decoration Day rituals – placing seasonal flowers on graves sites – sprang up in many locations around the South. Northerners, too, frequently chose a spring day for formal commemoration of the dead. In the spring of 1868, General John Logan officially designated May 30 “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” Memorial Day is still celebrated nationally on the day General Logan specified three years after the end of the Civil War. 

Ric Burns is best known for his acclaimed series “New York: A Documentary Film,” a sweeping chronicle of the city’s history, which garnered several honors, including two Emmy Awards and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award. Burns’ career began with the celebrated series “The Civil War,” which he produced with his brother, Ken Burns, and co-wrote with Geoffrey C. Ward.
Television’s most-watched history series, “American Experience” brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, “American Experience” documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award.

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